1 Are the Contrarians Right and Wrong?
Is the United States demographically positioned for years of economic growth? I am, perhaps naturally, a contrarian, in many things, and certainly at the moment, with markets seeming to defy gravity. Yet what if I, and most contrarians, are wrong, and the (US) markets actually have years of continued growth ahead of them? Is this possible? Is if different this time, and if so, why is it different. Or are historic indicators that signal doom strong enough to overcome the current "sweet spot" that enables sustained growth?
1.1 Is a crash due?
There are too many indicators that suggest a crash is due, ranging from record or near record EPS (earnings per share) levels, increasing consumer financial leverage, expanding sub-prime auto loans coupled with ever longer loan periods on vehicles, to inconsistent messages from the FED, the US debt and deficits, concern at the ability of the Trump administration to achieve any meaningful tax or economic program, to global debt levels and the real threat of a trade war with China, Russia and possibly Europe. There are simply so many potential triggers that could push investor confidence over the edge, and "buy the dip" has not, this recent post-election cycle, been adequately tested against a real dip of 5% or more.
1.2 Is Unemployment as low as official figures?
Counter balance the signs of potential doom with another terrible number, so terrible that it actually might be the number that enables multi-year sustained economic growth in the United States: Real Unemployment. Not the number produced by the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), which is based not on the number of people not working, but on the number of people collecting an unemployment benefit. That number is now in the high 4% range, a historically low number, and a number that fills economists with fear of wage and then wider inflation.
But if the Shadow Stats (http://www.shadowstats.com/) number is correct, then over 22% unemployment is the correct number of the United States today. This is based on the Shadow Stats use of historic methodologies for the determination of unemployment (and inflation, etc). Over the decades, the US Government's methodology for calculation these key metrics has changed. Shadow Stats continues to use the earlier methodology, on the assumption that while much has changed, the primary methodologies for calculating unemployment, for example, remain the same.
This is in part bolstered by the labor participation rate, which remains at historically low level, even with a recent up-tick in participation. Current labor force participation rate is around 62%, the same level as 1978. The gap between the highest participation rate of 67% in 2007 and the current participation rate amount to approximately 6.4 million potential workers.
The BLS tells us that the current Civilian Labor Workforce is 160 million. This means that the 4% drop equates to roughly 6.4 million potential workers who are not in the workforce. If 4% unemployment is this historical “full employment” number, then we are at or close to full employment, meaning there is an additional 4% of the workforce that is untapped. Shadow Stats estimates the number of additional discouraged worker who want a job to be around 4.75 million (as at June 2016).
2 Demographic "sweet spot"
So the US has seen a dramatic fall in the labor participation, and an explosion of unemployment to the 20% level, resulting in a huge pool of unemployed working age individuals. While the "dependency ratio" has not improved, at least one element of the demographic sweet spot is definitely in place.
So what is the demographic sweet spot, and how can a nation experience this twice?
As counties have matured over the past century, a trend has been seen that is now known as the demographic sweet spot. Effectively this is the period of time between the fall in birth-rates and the exhaustion of the available surplus working age population. That surplus available working age population is created through a higher dependency ratio (the number of working age individual for every dependent - child or elderly). As infant mortality rates fall, younger, and then working age, populations surge. At the same time, longevity improvements take some time to filter through, so the number of elderly dependents remains low.
The dependency ratio is important because the greater the number of working age individuals to retired or young, the greater the available pool of labor. The US currently has a low dependency ratio, which argues against there being a pool of available labor, yet we know from participation rates, unemployment rates, and the growth in the over-65 workforce, that the dependency ratio in the US is not acting as a drag on potential productivity increase.
This sweet spot increases the available human capital, and fuels economic growth through the increased productive capacity of the country.
Might the United States be in (again) that sweet spot, with a very large pool of available labor, ready to join (or re-join) the workforce once jobs are available?
3 If Shadow Stats is mostly right
Basically it comes down to the question; is Shadow Stats right on the unemployment rate, coupled with the labor market participation rate. If they are, then there is a massive pool of untapped labor available to industry. Bringing that labor into the workforce will require new jobs, and wage inflation.
Yet wage inflation is completely normal in developing countries that are going through their sustained growth periods when they reach the demographic sweet spot. The available workforce increases, jobs come in to absorb the available labor, skill improve, wages increase as the available labor at previous rates is soaked up, new jobs are created, etc.
4 If Shadow Stats is very wrong.
Yet is Shadow Stats is wrong, and the unemployment rates are actually lower, and that low labor market participation rates are low because of a systemic shift in workforce expectations and available jobs at any economic rate, then we are Doomed, Doomed. Well, maybe not doomed, but we cannot expect to see a demographically based sustained growth period.
If we are not in for such growth, then we should expect one of the factors mentioned in the opening paragraphs to be the trigger for a market collapse. If that does happen, all bets are off, and it will not be different this time.